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How to handle holiday GI discomfort

Last Modified: December 13, 2021

Family Medicine

holiday GI discomfort

This post was written by Kaely Bade, MD, PPG – Gastroenterology.

The holidays are a wonderful time of year filled with family, friends and lots of delicious food. Unfortunately, it can also be challenging for the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. For some, that can mean worsening diarrhea, exacerbating abdominal pain or the dreaded belly bloat. For others, constipation can become a problem. So, what is it about this time of year that makes even the most iron-clad stomach turn sour? Let’s explore a few of those reasons a little further.

Contributing factors

Many things can contribute to feeling unwell during the holidays. One factor that can affect the GI tract is stress in any form, including family gatherings, finances, time management, and more recently, Covid-19. Stress alone can cause an upset stomach, but it can also contribute to depression and anxiety. This, in turn, can aggravate abdominal pain and worsen other GI issues.

Additionally, all the work parties, increased alcohol consumption, eating on the go and sweet treats can also lead to a lack of dietary fiber. Individually or collectively, all these factors can wreak havoc on a previously normal GI tract, and people who already suffer from underlying irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), bloating, abdominal pain or even heartburn tend to be the most affected.

Ways to optimize your gut health

Fortunately, there are many things you can do to optimize your GI health during the holidays (and throughout the year). A few healthy ways to improve your holiday tummy troubles could include:

  • Managing your stress: Taking a few minutes out of the day to practice deep breathing or meditation can improve your mindset and ability to deal with the stressors in your life.
  • Exercising: Weather permitting, don’t be afraid to bundle up and take a walk outside. Studies have shown that light exercise can help mood and maybe even constipation.
  • Catch up on sleep: Getting enough sleep may seem like a no-brainer but being well-rested is paramount when dealing with stress. It also allows your body to heal while engaging in the restorative and repair processes.
  • Avoid unhealthy habits: Be cautious and steer clear of harmful methods of dealing with stress, such as overeating, drugs or alcohol. They will likely exacerbate GI symptoms and cause lasting damage in the long run.

Another lifestyle change that can help with various GI issues is eating a healthy diet high in fiber and low in processed foods. Doing this can significantly improve symptoms. Fiber is the roughage in the food we eat that the digestive tract cannot completely break down. Food sources high in fiber can include fresh fruits, nuts, beans, vegetables and whole grains. Consuming at least 20-30 grams a day can help prevent constipation or worsening diarrhea. Sadly, most Americans don’t get nearly enough fiber to maintain optimal gastrointestinal health.

Things to keep in mind while celebrating

At your holiday feast, it’s ok to have a slice of pie or piece of ham but be sure to fill your plate up with fruits and vegetables while limiting unhealthy choices that may not be the best for you. Also, if you have a family dinner that is notorious for unhealthy foods, offer to bring a healthy dish that you feel more comfortable eating. Likewise, it’s fine to have a holiday cocktail or a glass of wine with dinner but don’t go overboard and consume too much alcohol. Lastly, if you are dealing with bloating, cramping and/or loose stools, avoid artificial sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame, saccharine as they tend to make bloating worse.   

When to see a doctor

If you find your GI symptoms difficult to manage or notice them lingering past the holidays, please do not ignore them. You should speak to your primary care provider right away or consider seeing a gastroenterologist. You must take care of yourself, just as you would take care of your family and friends. Let’s have a happy holiday and a healthy new year. 

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